It's one of your favorite times of the year. Fantasy football draft season, baby! Let's talk about some newcomers to the NFL that may help guide your team to a championship in 2014 (and beyond)!
Part 1 of 2: Moxyball's top rookies for the 2014 fantasy football season. A short overview for each player and their 2014 expected contributions are detailed below.
1) Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills
I'll keep this pretty short because Watkins is being covered considerably across the web. Watkins has all the makings of a star wide-out, but has a young QB throwing to him (EJ Manuel) and there is likely to be a lot of pressure on his shoulders from the get-go. The opportunity will be there for him, with the Bills having shipped out Steve Johnson in the offseason... which is a main reason why he's listed at the top of 2014 rookie rankings as far as immediate impact goes. He has so much talent and should be a focal point of the Buffalo offense from week 1. He's making lots of noise in training camp with amazing catches and should be one of the few (if not the only rookie WR) to seriously challenge a 1,000+ yard season.
2) Bishop Sankey, RB, Tennessee Titans
I feel like Sankey is a bit of a trap pick for fantasy owners in drafts this year. He's usually being selected as the first rookie off the board in early drafts, due in large part to the seemingly easy path to playing time in Tennessee. I'm going to go out on a limb and say Watkins is going to have the better year from a fantasy perspective. Shonn Greene is currently tabbed as the Titan's starter and is going to cut into Sankey's carries. He's an experienced veteran at this point in his career, but nothing flashy. I expect him to carve out a significant role in the offense - regardless of if Sankey ends up taking over 1st and 2nd down duties. Like with Watkins, it wouldn't surprise me if he challenges for close to 1,000 yards in his rookie year - but I think the upside is pretty seriously capped this season. He's still a nice target in deeper leagues and keeper/dynasty formats - but redraft managers would likely be better off going with a veteran like Frank Gore, Chris Johnson, Ray Rice or Stevan Ridley who are going around the same time or even later in drafts.
3) Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints
You have to love any WR with the talent Cooks has going to a team like the Saints that have one of the best offenses in the game. He's currently going at about the 115th overall pick in early drafts, which seems about right for him considering the role he may or may not have. He'll have to compete with Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and sophomore Kenny Stills for touches in the offense. You do have to take into account that Colston is aging, Stills doesn't have Cooks' kind of talent - but Jimmy Graham will continue to be the rock of that receiving corps. The fact is, on the Saints roster (and even throughout the league) there is nobody with his kind of speed (4.33 40-yard timing). His QB Drew Brees recently was praising his work ethic and determination to learn, learn, learn. He's made some incredible plays early on in training camp with his ability to create in open space. He's a playmaker - plain and simple. He's received a tremendous amount of buzz in the early going at camp which will only move him up draft boards as we get closer to season kickoff. He could challenge for a 900+ yard season in his rookie year, with 70+ catches - which would make him a really nice PPR target as well.
4) Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns
Nobody in the rookie class has more questions around their outlook as Johnny Manziel (aka Johnny Football). He's got a firecracker personality, is a bit undersized, has gotten himself into some questionable situations in both College and post-NFL draft, and is currently slotted behind veteran Brian Hoyer on the depth chart. People around the league expect the Browns to give Manziel a look as their starter during the early part of the year, even if he doesn't break camp as their #1. It is probably a good thing to give him a bit of time on the sidelines to learn the game from that perspective - but the coaching staff will be receiving a lot of pressure from upper management to get their 1st round QB pick some snaps. He could be great. He could also be a total bust. I think his rookie year will have its ups and downs - eventually having him rank just about 20th in scoring among QBs come season's end. His upside is worth rolling the dice on in keeper and dynasty leagues, but doesn't need to be your QB1 unless you're in a 20 team league. I have no problem rostering him as a bench player to see how it plays out. If nothing else, it will surely be fun.
5) Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Evans is at the top of the class on many WR rookie ranking lists, and for good reason. He's got a big frame (6'5") which will give him a really nice height advantage on jump balls - as well as being a nice target in the red zone to put points on the board. With Vincent Jackson occupying much of the defense's attention last year, it was difficult for him to have consistently high level production. Mike Evans will be a much stronger compliment to Jackson, who essentially replaces Mike Williams who is now with the Bills. 60+ receptions, 900+ yards and 7+ TDs are within reach from the get-go for Evans... and that may be keeping things too conservative.
6) Terrance West, RB, Cleveland Browns
The Browns have been searching for a consistent answer at running back for quite a while now. They moved Trent Richardson to the Colts mid-way through the 2013 season… the guy who really burst onto the scene the prior year and seemed to be their "guy" for the long-haul. It turned out they wanted to go in a different direction, focusing on bringing in a number of new bodies to form their RB corps for 2014 and beyond. They signed former Texan Ben Tate as a free agent and drafted Terrance West. Tate figures to be the favorite for the bulk of early going carries to start the year, but has dealt with quite a few injuries in his career to date (an average of 6 games a year since coming into the league). West could easily emerge as their go-to back pretty quickly, with his ability to run between the tackles and use his slick hands to catch balls out of the backfield as well. The Browns have a very strong offensive line, which will only help him be successful once he gets a chance at consistent carries.
7) Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers
Checking in at 6'5" and 243 pounds - Benjamin has a lot of talent and a big body for a rookie receiver. Being drafted as a 1st rounder by Carolina, this isn't exactly a position where he's going to get a chance to shine right from the beginning. He plays in an offense that centers on the running game (both with Cam Newton as well as the RB corps) and when throwing, Greg Olsen is often the main beneficiary. With that being said, there are rave reviews coming out of camp about his ability to create separation at the point of contact and is very dangerous in the red zone - much like the talk we're hearing about Tampa's Mike Evans. They will likely bring him along slowly, with the best of his production coming down the road in 2015 and beyond as he becomes more of a focal point in the Carolina offense. Like with most rookies, he'll have flashes of brilliance in year 1... Just don't expect consistent week-in and week-out production quite yet.
8) Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers
I still like Frank Gore this year, despite his age. That being said, Carlos Hyde has a lot of talent and should work his way into a role in 2014. It wouldn't surprise me if Marcus Lattimore is also a part of the offense this year, but that is completely a function of if he's able to get healthy. Hyde should be San Francisco's guy over the long haul, and his time could come as early as 2014 if Gore's age does in fact start to show - or if he suffers an injury which is always a possibility in such a physical game. He's been going in drafts at approximately the 45th running back off the board, which seems pretty fair - but to me this is a bit early considering runners like Khiry Robinson, Christine Michael and Andre Williams are all being selected afterwards.
9) Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers
Adams looks to be more of a possession receiver than a deep threat, who is likely to be used more in a slot type role. He has great hands, is strong, and has tremendous ability to pick up yards after the catch - something that will be great for fantasy owners should he become a regular part of the Green Bay offense. Randall Cobb currently plays the role that Adams would be looking at himself, so for now his 2014 contribution potential lies in the hands of Cobb's performance and ability to stay on the field. What's important to note is that Cobb is in the final year of his contract, so Adams could become very relevant in fantasy circles in 2015 should he spend most of the year on the sidelines in 2014. Keep an eye on this situation, especially because Cobb is coming off a pretty significant injury and hasn't looked all that spectacular thus far in camp.
10) Jeremy Hill, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
Giovani Bernard is still the early-round selection to own in this backfield. But Jeremy Hill is making waves and is already carving out a nice little role for himself in training camp. There is talk about him seeing between 10-15 touches per game in the early going. This kind of chatter doesn't often happen unless there is concern about another player's ability to handle a full workload - and this isn't particularly surprising with Bernard, given his smaller and quicker stature. Hill on the other hand, is a bigger body and will play a similar role that Benjarvus Green-Ellis had last year, particularly after Bernard took over most of the snaps. We should see him get more goal line carries as well, which will benefit owners from a TD perspective. He's a very smart handcuff for Bernard owners, and will be a really big name to own should anything happen to Giovani from an injury perspective. Keep a close eye.